January 22nd, 2003

This is the last of a three part series describing a path to sustainability. See: 1) Our Global Situation 2) A Sustainable Alternative


The Simpler Way : The Transition

Ted Trainer

In the last 20 years a “Global Alternative Society Movement” has developed, in which many people all around the world have begun to build, live in and experiment with new settlements which enable simpler ways. The Directory of Eco-villages in Europe, (Hagmaier, et al, 2000) lists more than 300 settlements. The US Communities Directory, (FIC, 2000) lists 700 settlements. (Discussions of the Movement are given by Douthwaite, 1996, and Swhwarz and Schwarz, 1998.) The fate of the planet depends on whether the Movement is able to develop sufficient impressive examples of The Simpler Way in coming years.

The first important contribution we can all make to the transition to The Simpler Way is to talk constantly about the issues discussed in this document, to get them onto the public agenda.

However by far the most valuable contribution that can be made is to help to establish alternative ways and settlements right where we live, so that more people in the mainstream will be able to see that there is a Simpler Way which is viable and attractive. Following is the sort of general strategy people could take up in their towns and suburbs.

Form a Community Development Collective.A group must come together and form itself into a Community Development Collective (hereafter referred to as CDC.) Ideally the CDC will eventually develop into a mechanism for the participatory self-government of the town or suburb, but at first it might involve only a handful of individuals seeking to do some humble things.

The CDC’s initial goal is to identify and organise some of the locality’s unused productive resources of skill, energy, experience and good will so that people can start to produce some of the basic items they need.

Set up a community garden and workshop

The most promising first step is for the CDC to set up a community garden and workshop. The aim should not be the usual one of enabling individuals to hobby garden private plots. It should be to establish a cooperative “firm” organised and run by the CDC, especially to “employ” low income receivers in the production of food and other items for their own use. People other than low income receivers could and should be involved, but at first the strategy would be primarily to enable those sidelined by the normal economy to become economically active again. It is absurd that in any town or suburb many people are forced to endure idleness and boredom when they could be working collectively to meet many of their own needs. The CDC must organise this. It must work out what it makes sense for low income people to cooperatively plant or produce. The first concern would be to produce things to distribute among contributors for immediate consumption, but sale of surpluses would generate some cash income for the group.

If possible a simple workshop should be set up at the same time as the garden, for instance to enable repair of furniture and appliances for use by participants. The setting up and the productive activity should be carried out by cooperative teams, thus establishing the powerful working bee concept that will be extended to local development later.

The CDC must then continue to look for areas in which additional cooperative production could be organised. A very promising early possibility would be bread baking. Once or twice a week a cooperative working bee might produce most of the bread etc the group needs, again selling some to outsiders for cash. Another early possibility would be the repair of furniture, bicycles and appliances. The workshop could become a shop where surpluses are for sale. Scavenging from the locality, especially on council waste collection days, will provide furniture, appliances, bicycle parts and toys to be repaired and materials for use in the workshop. Other possible areas of activity would be house repair and maintenance, nursery production, herbs, poultry, honey, preserving and bottling fruits and vegetables, toy making, making slippers and sandals, hats, bags and baskets, car repair and the “gleaning” of local surplus fruit from private back yards.

In some cases the workshops and sales outlets can be located at the local garbage tip. Vast quantities of valuable items and materials go into tips so special efforts should be made to arrange with councils for our CDC to set up a recycling operation there. The CDC would also become known as a firm to contact to get odd jobs done.

Later the CDC would explore somewhat more complicated fields in which it could organise productive activity, such as planting fast growing trees for fuel wood, aquaculture, house building and repairing, insulation, recycling and planting “edible landscapes” on public land.

These activities would of course also provide important intangible benefits, such as the experience of community and worthwhile activity. The involvement of local people who are not on low incomes would be important, especially gardeners, handymen and retired people. Ideally the garden and workshop would become a lively community centre with information, recycling, and meeting and leisure functions. Specific times in the week should be set when all would try to gather at the site for the working bees, followed by a meal, discussions and social activities.

Establish a local currency, such as a LETSystem

The time inputs of work by individuals would be recorded so that produce and earnings could be distributed accordingly. This would enable contributions from regular and occasional participants to be “paid”. Thus the CDC has created a new currency, which might simply be a LETSystem.

However an alternative currency such as LETS is far from all that is required for regional economic renewal. A LETSystem on its own will make little difference to a local economy. Unfortunately this is not well understood within alternative economic circles. LETS has been unable to become a significant economic force. Indeed LETS transactions rarely make up more than about 5% of the economic activity of the average participant, let alone of the region. (Douthwaite, 1996, p. 76.) Why?

The main problem participants in a LETSystem experience is the difficulty of finding goods or services to buy with their LETS credits, and of finding items they can produce and sell to earn credits. The problem in other words is that participants in general can’t produce many of the things they would like to buy, i.e., the problem is the lack of firms. LETS leaves individuals to look for something they as an individual might be able to sell. Its participants are often people without many skills. The system is not very effective in enabling the formation of productive entities such as a local bakery in which many people with few skills might be able to work and earn satisfactorily as employees. This sets the most important task that the CDC must take on, i.e., the facilitation and at times the establishment of new businesses that will provide jobs and goods. The garden and workshop were parts of the CDC’s first cooperative “firm”. In time some of these firms can be leased to particular families or cooperatives.

Connecting with the normal/old economy
stimulating the town’s internal economy

So far we have created a new sector of economic activity involving some of the many people who previously were relatively poor and unable to work. However there are not that many important items that the people in this new sector can produce for themselves. For example they can’t realistically produce radios for themselves. The next step must be to enable people in this new sector to trade with the normal/old firms that exist within the locality. These old firms are selling many goods low income people want but can’t produce for themselves and can’t purchase because they have little “normal” money.

The CDC must study the situation and find out what things the new sector as a whole can start providing to some of the old sector firms. It must go to existing firms to discuss what they could possibly buy from us, and it must consider setting up new firms within the CDC to supply these items. Clearly we within the CDC can’t buy things from the old firms unless the people in the new money sector are able to produce and sell as much to the old sector as they buy from it.

The CDC must look for things some of those firms would want to start buying from the new sector immediately. In the case of restaurants the best answer is likely to be vegetables from the CDC’s cooperative garden (which we would sell to the restaurant for new money thus enabling it to accept payment for meals in new the money.)

Most important; don’t set yup firms that will compete with the existing firms in the town. There is no net benefit in us setting up a bakery that wins the existing scarce bread sales opportunities and therefore just puts people in the existing bakery out of work. Our focus must be on creating sales and jobs in a new economy involving those people previously excluded from economic activity.

It is in the interests of the old firms to join in all this enthusiastically , because this will enable them to greatly increase their sales and their real incomes. They will be able to start selling to that large group of people previously not involved in much economic activity, (Öbut they will have to use LETS currency to do so.)

Organise town working bees

The development of the garden and workshop takes place through cooperative working bees. Before long the CDC should organise voluntary neighbourhood or town working bees, perhaps occasional at first but eventually occurring at set times aimed at developing the locality in desirable ways, e.g., planting fruit and nut trees in local parks, or building simple premises for new little firms.

The market day

A market day would be organised to sell CDC produce and products, and so that many people who do not operate firms or work full time for wages can gain income by selling items they produce in small volume through home gardens, craft activity or family produce. We would avoid the sale of unimportant items, trinkets, luxuries and unnecessary goods imported to the town.

Development of the commons

The locality should eventually have developed many community resources that will supply all with “free” goods, such as edible landscapes of fruit, nut and fuel trees on public land, herb and bamboo patches, ponds, fish tanks, green houses, stores, recycling replaces, sources of mud, earth and timber for building, landscaped recreational space, woodlots, community halls and workshops, premises for little firms and co-ops, windmills and other energy sources, etc. These can be built and maintained by the voluntary working bees. They can greatly reduce the need people have to earn money in order to purchase things.

Replacing imports to the town or suburb.Eventually the CDC must take on the import replacement problem. The proportion of the town or suburb’s consumption that is met by imported goods is typically very high. When goods are produced somewhere else and imported this means that the jobs that were involved in their production are not located in the town, and it means that money is flowing out of the town. The CDC will have to study the import situation, e.g., by surveying what townspeople are purchasing in order to identify the items the town is most likely to be able to start producing. Food is the most obvious item so we should explore the establishment of Community Supported Agriculture schemes and local farmers’ markets. Other possibilities are fire wood, and insulation, as replacements for imported coal, oil, gas and electricity, and timber from woodlots and earth for building

Reducing the need for money in the first place

The CDC must constantly focus attention on the importance of living simply, making things yourself, home gardening, repairing and re-using. The fewer goods people consume the less that the town will have to import or provide. The more simple their demands are the more likely that these can be met from local resources. The more we do without or make for ourselves the less money we need to earn in order to buy things. Every dollar we can cut from our expenditure the less the town needs to export to pay for our lifestyle, and the less we have to work to earn money.

The CDC could develop craft groups to increase home production of many items for use within the home. It might organise classes, skill sharing and display days for gardening, pottery, basket making, woodwork, preserving, sewing, sandal making, weaving, leatherwork, blacksmithing, etc. It could list skilled people willing to give advice or run classes. It could also list sources of materials, especially from the commons such as bamboo clumps and clay pits. The CDC could develop recipes for nutritious but cheap meals mainly using plants that grow well locally.

Leisure, entertainment, celebrations, festivals and culture.

One of the committees within the CDC should focus on the possibilities for providing local and cheap entertainment, especially including regular concerts, dances, visiting artists, craft and produce shows, art galleries, picnic days and festivals. For example can we form a drama club, a comedy group, a choir, a gym display troupe? After the Saturday morning market we might establish an afternoon working bee followed by a town meeting, games, evening meal, party and performances of some sort? What regular celebrations, rituals and festivals can be organised?

Capital; Form a town bank (or credit union)

In general little capital should be needed to get the new local economy going because the main enterprises are mostly humble and labour-intensive and do not need elaborate premises or expensive stock. It is important not to approach normal banks for capital if at all possible (because they might make you pay back $3 for every $1 you borrow!) Thought should be given to unorthodox ways of raising capital, e.g., by “pre-selling” meal or swim vouchers long before the restaurant or the swimming pool is built.

The CDC can organise campaigns to accumulate capital for particular development projects that are important for the town. Some towns and communities have voluntary taxation systems, whereby people can fund projects they wish to see developed. In a sensible world most of the normal tax revenue would be collected locally and spent locally. Contributing to a working bee can be a way of paying tax. Some communities have low or zero interest town development accounts into which those who are willing and able deposit some of their savings because they wish to support desirable local development. Note how those developments can proceed even if only a small number of people support them; it is usually not the case that nothing worthwhile can be done unless all agree.

The town or region should at some stage establish its own bank or credit union. There is at present considerable interest within Australia in establishing town banks to replace normal banks that are leaving town. Unfortunately this will not achieve much if the new banks follow conventional lending patterns. To continue to lend to ventures following the old strategies (export more vigorously, seek more tourists etc.) is to continue the development strategy that led to the decline of the town and the departure of the bank in the first place. Little will be achieved just by substituting our bank for the old one unless we make sure that local savings are directed primarily to the development of local economic-self sufficiency and not to promoting export industries.

Taking control of the region

In the long term the goal is for the people of the town or suburb to have taken over control of most of the social, economic and cultural activities occurring in the region, via mechanisms that are highly participatory, open and democratic. For ecological reasons and for reasons of economic security, in a sustainable society almost all of the economic decisions that affect you will be made fairly close to where you live.

The vital research and educational functions of the CDC

The most important functions for the CDC are to do with education. At the start few people in the town will be thinking about the issues being discussed here so the CDC’s basic task will be to gradually build an understanding of and a commitment to the project.

Above all it is important to increase awareness of the global significance of these efforts to transform the local economy. People must be helped to see that only if we develop these new local economies can we solve the major global problems threatening us. The overall goal is not “prosperity” conventionally defined. It is not to do with raising the town’s “living standards” defined in terms of GNP per capita. It is not to bring more income into the region. The goals are to enable the town, suburb or region to provide itself with many of the basic goods and services needed to ensure that its people can have a satisfactory quality of life and to enable all those excluded by the old economy to have access to productive activity and incomes, and especially to be secure from the unreliable and predatory national and international economies.

Conclusion

If we do make it to a sustainable and just world order then the transition will have been begun by tiny groups of people who at some point in time take on this task of working out how they could start to change their towns and suburbs into highly self-sufficient and cooperative local economies. No one is an expert on how to do these things. They can’t be done by external officials or corporations. They can only be done in your locality by ordinary people who live there. Even if we had experts in the process they could not come in and start telling your neighbours what to do.

It will probably take a long time and a lot of effort to do these things. We should not expect instant support from the locality while most people there are enjoying affluent lifestyles. We must set ourselves for many years of plodding away slowly establishing the systems that people in the mainstream will become more interested in as the conventional economy increasingly fails to provide for people. Central in our task is building the examples that some day will be influential, and that provide the base for our educational work in the short run.

Again we should always keep in mind that the ultimate goal is not just to save our town but to save the planet. Only if there is a move to forms of settlement and to economies which enable people to live well without consuming much can we hope to eliminate the resource depletion, the Third World deprivation, the environmental destruction, the scarcity conflicts and the social breakdown being caused by the present commitment to affluence and growth. That move cannot be made unless people take up the task of starting to build examples of The Simpler Way where they live.

Copyright 2003 Ted Trainer


Visit Ted Trainer’s website: The Simpler Way 

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